The festive atmosphere was rare in Taiwan at the time, as the island was in the midst of the first Taiwan Strait crisis against the communists in mainland China, while the effects of World War II and the Korean War continued.
Politicians, media, and Keelung residents came to bid farewell to “Free China”, a half-century-old scrap ship, and its six-man crew.
The ruler of Taiwan gave the boat its name, a reference to the ongoing battle with the mainland.
The small boat, which had a political name, was about to sail across the Pacific Ocean to compete in an international yachting race, laden with the hopes and dreams of the crew and their supporters.
The race was scheduled to start on the other side of the world, starting in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, and ending in Gothenburg, Sweden.
But, there was only one problem.
What the revelers in Keelung did not realize was that the five Chinese crew members and the US vice consul, who joined the voyage at the last minute, did not know how to sail a junk boat.
The Mastermind of the Trip: Paul Chow
Paul Chow, now 94, masterminded the trip.
Zhao, a retired physics professor at California State University, grew up in a relatively wealthy family in China, and his parents were among the few who were educated in the United States.
In 1941, as the Japanese army rushed into the area, Zhao’s mother took her four children and moved from Hong Kong to mainland China.
“All of our relatives and friends were in Hong Kong,” Zhao said in an interview with CNN. “We were almost completely isolated.”
Zhao and his brother left high school to join the army, then returned to Shanghai to reunite with his mother after the war.
When Chao went to the port, the first thing he noticed was the smell of food. “I’ve been starving since the war, and since 1937 when the Japanese came,” Chao said. “The food was all we ever dreamed of… So, I told my mother, ‘That’s enough.'” I’m not going to college, I’m going to be a hunter.”
Thus, Zhao recognized Renho Chen, and Benny Hsu.
The three of them quickly agree, and then meet their fellow Hunters Marco Chong, Hu Lu Che, or “Hulu”.
In 1949, the five fishermen were stranded in Taiwan when the Communists declared victory and took control of the mainland, leaving them cut off from their families.
In 1954, Zhao came across a newspaper story about an international yachting race, which prompted Zhao to ask his companions: “Do you think they would accept a Chinese junk boat?”
Zhao decided to write to the newspaper.
Predictably, the Chinese received a telegram from the North American Yachting Federation that Zhao’s “junk boat” had been accepted into the race, and had been awarded the number “320” for racing.
The problem was that Zhao didn’t have a junk boat.
Find a boat, a crew
With a few months until the race, Zhao traveled around the islands of Taiwan in search of a boat.
The vehicle found was the last ever commercial junk boat and had a load of salted fish from mainland China.
Consul bought the boat for $1,670, then recruited his five friends to form the crew.
Soon their story was in the news, and support began to emerge.
The crew had 3 tanks of fresh water, and already 2 chickens, then they received a donation from the Rotary Club of Keelung and Taipei that was a 6-month food supply.
However, the crew needed to secure US entry visas.
Upon arriving at the consulate, the team met a friendly man, the vice-consul, Calvin Millert.
A few days later, the American unexpectedly appeared and asked to see the sleeping area on the boat. “You have 6 beds, and only 5 people. What if you let me join the crew?”
The American promised them that they would get their visas.
In this way, Millert became the last member of the crew, the flight photographer.
Two months before the race
68 days before the race, the crew left Keelung port and spent 5 hours figuring out how to operate the boat.
The next morning, the navigator Zhao got up to check their coordinates, and it turned out that they were in the same place.
Another challenge arose after they adjusted their course, as the sails of the boat became stuck, in addition to the rope as well.
After their defeat, the crew requested that the boat be towed and returned to Keelung.
The mayor, beginning to question his support for the crew, let the friends set off again.
After a series of challenges, “Free China” was withdrawn to Okinawa, Japan.
When the bad news reached Taiwan, the island’s Fisheries Authority was reported to have sent a telegram to the Okinawa Port Authority asking them not to allow the crew to sail again.
However, Millert helped them get out of the predicament.
By the time they left Yokohama after undergoing multiple repairs, it was on June 17, they had already died at the start of the race that began on June 14.
To motivate themselves to keep going, the crew decided they were in their own race now.
“From Yokohama, it took us another 52 days to cross the ocean,” Zhao said.
By the time they reached San Francisco, on August 8, it had been 126 days since they first left Keelung.
Although the crew discussed several plans, planning to continue their journey to Sweden and Europe, Zhao emphasized that “once we arrived, no one wanted to set foot on the boat again.”
The boat is back in Taiwan again
Regardless of the differences, the flight tied the six crew members for life.
The friends kept in touch even though they moved to different parts of the world.
To find out what happened to the boat, Zhao said he should talk to Dion Chen, the daughter of Reno, one of the crew members.
After her father’s death in 2007, Chen regretted not having listened to his stories more respectfully when she was young.
Chen wanted to know more from Zhao, but he encouraged her to see the boat first.
Seeing the boat awaiting its fate, i.e. demolition, in a shipyard on Bethel Island, Chen fell in love with it, and vowed to save it.
Chen succeeded in this after a grueling plan that lasted 4 and a half years.
Half a century after its voyage, “Free China” made its way across the Pacific again in 2012, this time with the help of tow trucks and, this time, cargo ships.
The boat is now undergoing preservation at the National Taiwan Ocean University in Keelung, and is the oldest known Chinese junk boat in the world.
Chen hopes her story will encourage others to explore their heritage before it is too late.